Frederic Rzewski wrote his monumental variation set based on Sergio Ortega’s Chilean resistance anthem song “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” for pianist Ursula Oppens, who premiered it in 1976 and made its first recording a few years later. It’s a fine performance in and of itself, yet Oppens’ stupendous new 2014 recording for Cedille surpasses the earlier version in every respect.
The opening theme, for starters, is more impassioned at its loud peaks, while the first six variations gain energy and character through Oppens’ heightened sense of voice leading. The dissonant grace note effect of Variation 7’s two-against-three rhythmic patterns is clearer than what many pianists make of it, while Variation 9’s counterpoint benefits from Oppens’ drier, more cogently contoured rethinking.
Variation 10’s splattered, Boulez-like gestures and zigzagging glissandos may not transpire so “recklessly” as the composer indicates, yet the inner logic of his meticulous dynamic markings comes out in Oppens’ faithful rendition. Variation 15’s improvisatory, folk-song-like quality spills over into more elaborate territory in Variation 16. Most pianists (Rzewski included) sustain a similar mood and tone between these two variations. Not Oppens, whose feathery pianissimos and una corda pedal deployment at No. 16’s outset create a magical tonal shift that accurately reflects what’s marked in the score.
Variation 19’s jagged motives, so often pounded out on the same dynamic and emotional level, convey a playful, conversational repartée. Young speed demons who insanely blur their way through Variation 21’s relentless finger twisters have no clue of the wonderful harmonic content that Oppens’ “sanely” fast fingers bring out. However, one can argue that Oppens’ faster and lighter treatment of Variations 26 and 28 plays down the music’s grim, march-like gravitas in contrast to Rzewski’s slower, sharper-edged interpretation. Just before the theme returns, Rzewski gives pianists the option to improvise a cadenza; Oppens’ first recording didn’t include one. Here, the pianist’s short, lyrical, and absolutely lovely improvisation incorporates ideas from Variation 25.
Overall, Oppens’ virtuosity, musicality, and insightful inspiration add up to the most gratifying People United on disc, alongside Rzewski’s own 1986 HatArt label recording (out-of-print on CD, but available as a download). The recorded premiere of Rzewski’s more recent and delightfully inventive Four Hands features Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal relishing the music’s tricky rhythmic hockets, airy contrapuntal traps, fleeting allusions to Romantic fare, and jazzy final fugue with masterful glee. No lover of 20th- and 21st-century piano music should miss this important release.